An American examination of conscience

Originally Appeared in : 9710-5/11/17

Catholics are often encouraged to examine their consciences for sacramental confession based on the Ten Commandments. If the Christians of our nation were to collectively examine our consciences based on the Ten Commandments, what sins may be revealed? 


“I am the Lord thy God, thou shalt not have any strange gods before Me.” 

American Christians are not worshiping golden calves or pagan gods. However, we worship the idols of consumerism, work, entertainment, and technology. How else do we explain Black Friday frenzies, work that consumes our family time, sports fanaticism, obsession with celebrity, and being plugged into technology throughout our waking hours? While we may claim to place God first in our lives, how many of us devote to God as much attention or time as we devote to these idols? 


“Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.” 

Many people associate this commandment with cursing. But refraining from cursing is not enough. When American Christians suggest that God is punishing people through natural disaster or disease; when they promote the Gospel of prosperity which claims followers are financially rewarded for their faith in God; and when they use Christianity to condemn and vilify, they are taking God’s name in vain. Using God’s name in hurtful, exploitive, and divisive ways is far worse than cursing. 


“Remember to keep holy the Sabbath day.”

It’s pointless to wax nostalgic about the days when all the stores were closed on Sunday and the only activities were church services and family dinners. Our holy Sabbaths have been consumed with sports activities, shopping, and, for many, work. And even if we cannot return to Sundays devoted to only worship and family, we could turn our minds and hearts toward God more often than we do. For many, the obligatory church service, once fulfilled, is a box ticked off until the next week. Keeping a day or even an hour holy is not something our culture supports. Busyness is applauded and encouraged. Many Americans remain surrounded by noise and distraction, so much so that we aren’t comfortable without it. Cultivating a habit of silent reflection is foreign to most. 


“Honor thy father and mother.”

Parenthood has become competitive for many. In some circles, parents are pressured to provide every form of advantage to their children, from finding the most exclusive preschools to preparing their children for the Ivy Leagues. In doing so, these parents build their lives around their children to the extent that the children feel entitled to all that’s provided them. While at the other end of the spectrum, those parents who cannot afford to provide the best for their children are unsupported because they lack a safety net of adequate daycare and other assistance. Elderly parents are often separated from their families at a time when they are most dependent. Some are neglected because families are too busy to spend time with them. 


“Thou shalt not kill.”

Gun violence is a stain upon our country. We have grown to accept it as part of the cost of being American. While most Americans understand the need for universal background checks, the most vocal and radical are trying to reverse reasonable gun control measures. The blood of children gunned down in school and accidentally killed by guns left unsecured is on the hands of all who fail make efforts to prevent such tragedies. 


“Thou shalt not commit adultery.”  “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife.” 

Commandments six and nine speak to sexual immorality. In many cases, American Christians do a good job of promoting the importance of these commandments. Yet our lives don’t always reflect the values we claim. In addition to the sins of adultery and lust, we must consider that our culture too often responds to sexual assault through victim blaming or trivializing. In magazine and television ads, the bodies of women and men are sexualized and objectified. Sex trafficking has become a horrible consequence of prostitution and pornography. 


“Thou shalt not steal.” 

Once again, we may interpret this commandment as easy to obey, if we don’t rob a bank, shoplift, or break into someone’s home. Stealing is not always so obvious. When we deny workers a living wage, when we evade taxes, commit fraud, and embezzle, we are stealing. When those with great wealth exploit the system to maintain and increase their wealth, they are stealing. 


“Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.” 

While gossip is always a temptation, bearing false witness has taken on an even more sinister tone with the proliferation of false news and social media trolling. Bearing false witness may even be inadvertent, when we spread misinformation thinking it is factual. It’s incumbent on all of us to be vigilant and check our sources carefully. 


 “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s goods.” 

Unhealthy competition, consumerism, greed, and jealousy are violations of this commandment. I’d add the intense focus on individualism in American culture. We tend to believe that we earned all we have, forgetting that our lives, talents, and material wealth are gifts from God, and all we have is meant to be shared others. We covet our neighbor’s goods when we resent sharing with those in need. 


In a healthy examination of conscience, American Christians must give the Ten Commandments more than superficial consideration, lest we grow complacent in our sin. 


Mary Hood Hart is a freelance writer and educator living in Pittsboro, NC. She can be reached at

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